Ken Jennings


January 29, 2007

I downloaded Microsoft’s new Google Earth “killer” over the weekend. I think Virtual Earth 3D is still in beta, but I was impressed by the render-mapped 3D buildings I saw in screen shots, so I checked it out. The ambitious 3-D mouse control interface takes some adjustment, but mouse-only navigation would sure be nice if I could get the hang of it. Unlike Google Earth, it runs within a browser, which might be a plus for some, but by “a browser” they mean “not Firefox,” so I wasn’t really a fan. Also, it runs markedly slower than Google Earth right now, but maybe that’s the textured buildings. The new Google Earth 4 supports textured buildings, but I think you have to download them individually from Google’s “3D Warehouse.”

But speaking of the 3D buildings: some oddities of Virtual Earth’s:

  • Someone I know at Microsoft told me that rendering the 3D buildings was largely automatic, based on those four oblique “side-view” shots Microsoft displays on their website, but Virtual Earth’s buildings don’t look automated. They look like someone had to hand-draw the vector representation for each one. That’s either a great compliment to their automated algorithm…or it means that every building in the world will have to be plotted by a team of guys in Bangalore. (My guy also showed me their cool way to automate tree-rendering, but Virtual Earth 3D has no 3D trees at the moment.)
  • Some “showcase” buildings are clearly rendered by hand, in incredible detail, so Microsoft can show off the screen-shots. The Space Needle, Safeco Field, and Qwest Field, in Seattle, have all been hand-drawn.
  • Near many of these “showcase” buildings are ginormous “virtual billboards” not found on our Earth. Sadly, Virtual Earth’s billboards don’t advertise Virtual products and services. They advertise stuff on our earth…and a single click will take you each advertiser’s website. Yuck.
  • Virtual Earth seems to be adding textured buildings in an unusual order. Microsoft’s hometown of Seattle has hundreds and hundreds of buildings, but New York has, like, three. One odd unintended consequence of this: the Empire State Building isn’t 3D on Virtual Earth, but the LDS North Seattle stake center, where I used to go to church as a kid, is.

A random thought that will make no sense if you haven’t seen Visconti’s 1971 movie of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Mindy and I were watching this slow-moving classic the other night, and I realized the best way to enjoy Death in Venice: pretend it’s the longest Mr. Bean sketch ever made.

It’s perfect! Silent, fussy Englishman abroad goes into slow burn as he gets into frustrating scrapes with locals: the gondolier won’t take him to Piazza San Marco, the railway station accidentally sends his luggage on to Como, nobody will tell him what’s going on with the epidemic. When Dirk Bogarde is unfolding a beach umbrella or stewing at a maitre’d, you can almost hear the hollow, canned BBC laughter. Oh, also, in this version Mr. Bean is a pedophile and he dies of cholera.

By substituting two letters, you can turn GROWTH into GROTTO or GROUCH. What’s the only English word you can produce by changing two letters in the word APPARATUS? (Note to nerds: Harry Potter is not real and “apparated” isn’t a word.)

Posted by Ken at 1:20 pm